As the problem of civil asset forfeiture continues to grow, and more media outlets continue highlighting egregious examples of innocent citizens wrongly targeted and denied their basic due process rights, states are taking matters into their own hands.
Seizure and forfeiture practices vary widely from state to state. In the vast majority of states, at least some proportion of forfeiture proceeds – including cash, cars, homes, or other seized property – go directly to law enforcement. Criminologists, economists and legal scholars have all found evidence that police departments are relying on lenient forfeiture statutes to make up for gaps in budgets or cover frivolous spending (ranging from campaign ads to football tickets).
States like Montana and New Mexico have reformed the practice, requiring a conviction or guilty plea from the property owner before forfeiture proceedings can take place. And other states are close to joining them. Michigan is working to pass a comprehensive package of bills that would go a long way toward protecting its citizens from the worst abuses of the practice.
Building Momentum for Reform in 2015: State-by-State Overview
A prime example of bipartisan support for civil asset forfeiture reform, New Mexico reformed its civil asset forfeiture laws in April of 2015. With unanimous approval in the statehouse, Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill into law that would ban the practice of forfeiting property without a conviction. Thanks to the newly enacted law, property forfeiture is only permitted if a person is found guilty of a crime.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill in early May 2015 that reforms civil asset forfeiture practices in the state. The law requires a conviction before seized property can be forfeited and that seized property be shown by “clear and convincing evidence” as connected to the alleged crime. Essentially, as with other states that have pushed for reform, Montana’s law shifts the burden of proof to the government.